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Essay China Contemporary Art

  • 1  This article is based on Emmanuel Lincot Culture, identité et réformes politiques : la peinture en (…)

1Studying contemporary art in China is not an exclusively aesthetic choice. In the context of an emerging market, art is as much a matter of cultural economy as of socio-politics. Thus art is not the product of an independent condition. In its imagination, as well as in its own diversity and its transformations, it encompasses and summarises the changes of a culture which is appropriating the schemes, images and notions inherited both from an age-old tradition and from the West (a West which is sometimes in close proximity, as in the case of Muslim Central Asia or Buddhist India). Artists reinterpret the original meaning in order to arrive at a proclamation of their own difference, which is usually held up as cultural nationalism. In order to understand the evolution of contemporary Chinese art, we will examine some salient facts of artistic life in the country, which was profoundly changed by the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping. These changes have not stopped uniting or dividing the Chinese cultural scene in its relations with a government engaged in a constant search for legitimacy, the guarantor of order, and of an orthodoxy which has been shaken by the economic opening up of the country and by globalisation 1.

  • 2  Cf. Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China (1949-1979), Berkeley (…)

2Art in China since 1979 and the first reforms, is a space where two major aspects of Chinese history at the end of the twentieth century intersect, under the two-fold aegis of political orthodoxy and of a multifarious culture (duoyuan wenhua), which oscillates constantly between the endogenous and the exogenous, between native traditions and imported cultural practices, while calling into question the aesthetic criteria of what is called the socialist-realist period 2. This enormous and tumultuous mixing, often linked to acute political crises, lies at the source of a huge iconography which exercises its power over successive generations, and reveals itself as the arena of intense rivalries where the most diverse temporalities clash. One cannot understand, in hindsight, either the emergence of a political and reactionary pop art (the critique of mass consumption, the ironic and playful extolling of Maoism…) or the popularity of kitsch, without taking into account the irresistible infatuation, in China, with enchantment (qiguan), the post-revolutionary sentimentality. This is, by definition, one of the most anecdotal aspects, and thus the most dated, of a period marked by a sudden acceleration of history. An art of transition, kitsch in its Chinese version, marks the beginning of a concensus established between the government and public opinion about the value of money. Thus art, which was essentially, in China, that of painting and calligraphy, has become a plural phenomenon: there is not art, but arts.

The impact of the exhibition “China/Avant-garde”

  • 3  Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2000.

3The first national and avant-gardist retrospective, China/Avant-garde (Zhongguo xiandai yishu zhan), which took place at the Peking Palace of Fine Arts in 1989 3, constituted a precursory event. The artistic community, on the eve of the repression of the Tian’anmen movement, gave meaning, its own meaning, to ten years placed under the sign of a self-proclaimed avant-gardism, which the successor generation was to recognise only in order to distance itself from it more effectively, thus laying claim to a total break from it and the gap between it and the traditional world of art, and in particular that of painting. The values of painting—linked to those of the scholar and the age-old myth of state culture—on which rest the framework of debate and political choice lead to the definition of new frontiers. While information—which was scattered from the 1980s onwards—and the transformation of Chinese society do not allow the historian to envisage, for the moment, an all-encompassing analysis, covering all the events which were part of the new languages of art, it does seem possible, however, to focus on the exhibitions and the new artistic professions which created the new face of a society seeking to legitimise both its Chinese identity and its contacts with the outside world.

Peking, 1989. China/Avant-garde (Nu U-Turn).

In Hung Wu, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, op. cit., p. 16

  • 4  On these artists, and the period concerned, a number of journals and books in Chinese are available (…)

41989 was the year of a failed revolution. It was also that of a successful aesthetic putsch, with the exhibition China/Avant-garde which opened on February 5th and brought together 293 paintings, sculptures and videos by 186 artists—among them Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Wu Shanzhuan, Huang Yongping and Gu Wenda 4.

5The event was prepared for a long time, within the framework of so-called “modern Chinese art” (Dangdai yishu yantaohui) convention, whose principles were established in November of the previous year in Tunxi in the province of Anhui. This exhibition was the result of a collaboration between three art critics: Gao Minglu, Peng De, and Li Xianting. Gao Minglu, who now teaches in the United States, was the editor at the time of the magazine Meishu. Peng De, Vice-President of the Hubei Artists’ Research Institute, edited the most independent art magazine Meishu sichao, which was published in Wuhan until it was definitively censored from 1987 onwards. Li Xianting is attached to the Art Research Institute of Peking. Co-founder and editor of Zhongguo meishubao until his resignation in 1989, he remains one of the most influential critics in China.

6China/Avant-garde did not show the public any traditional Chinese painting (guohua, literally: national painting) or calligraphy. The exhibition expertly summed up the climate of tension which, for several years, had constantly divided the art scene. China/Avant-garde was the first national exhibition of experimental art (shiyan meishu). This is the name given to any exhibition which allows the works to produce their effect on their own, eliminating any rooting (of the work, of the criticism, of the institution) in a cult. China/Avant-garde was precisely a challenge placed in opposition to any form of cult. The event was marked by a performance by Tang Song and Xiao Lu: shots were fired at point-blank range on their installation, a telephone booth ironically entitled “duihua” (Dialogue). The organisers aimed, at those who were willing to see, tangible signs of the break between the moment of the exhibition and the public, using streamers stamped with the label “No U-Turn”.

7This mode of artistic expression was to become predominant during the following decade. The exhibition of experimental art goes against the repressive state (an expression equivalent to a pleonasm in the case of China, which has never been a liberal state). The clash between these two entities which are opposed in every way (an abstract organisation versus a concrete manifestation) could only be head-on. China/Avant-garde was censored. The event preceded the repression of the Tian’anmen Square demonstrators, which took place three months later.

  • 5  Cf. Kraus Richard Curt, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy, Ber (…)
  • 6  Francis A. Yates, L’Art de la mémoire, Paris, Gallimard, 1975.

8If we consider that an art as overwhelmingly cult-bound as painting—and its corollary, the veneration of an image which corresponds as much to that of the scholar as to the culture of which he is the guardian—was suddenly made available to all, one can understand that, in parallel with museum exhibition, the Chinese visual arts went into crisis (weiji). This crisis in art—and in particular in painting and calligraphy, which are considered, in China, to be at the summit of the hierarchy of aesthetic and social values 5—consisted in fact in the invention of it. Where before there had been no art in the strict meaning of the word, but an object of or for worship, from then on there was art, because a question had been asked about the gesture that founds it. Each exhibition of contemporary art reinvents art by asking again the question of art, of its boundaries, and, a novelty in China, of memorisation, or of what Francis A. Yates, in a completely different context, called the art of memory, emphasising the value and the anamnestic role of history 6. It took the transformation of an ancient religious art into an exhibition art, before the question of what was religious in it—its aura—could at last be asked.

Towards the disappearance of the old frameworks

9The exhibition, as place, as work, and as event, has since become a space for the transformation of the traditional categories in the domain of the visual arts. As happened in the United States and in Europe almost forty years ago, the frame, both literally and figuratively, is being shattered before our eyes, shaking up the elements of a visual language which, in the past, had assigned to the visual arts (calligraphy and painting) and to their supports (the guohua scroll, the stretcher for oil on canvas) their specificities in terms of domain: materials, hanging, places of exhibition, modalities of diffusion borrowed from Western practices. It is the work which, as is the artists’ wish, leads very directly to the questioning of its exhibition, and more generally questions the role of exhibition.

10In the wake of these upheavals and the profusion of experimentation, a growing number of artists abandoned the base, the frame and the scroll; the wall, the table (the conventional support for the Reading—nian—of a calligraphy or of a shanshui) were no longer pre-eminent for the presentation of works, and many of them now occupied the floor or the ceiling. The archetype of the museum, an inheritance from nineteenth century Europe and before that from the early curiosity rooms of the Renaissance, with its cultural and political implications, as well as in its very architectural configuration, was disputed; artists like Zhang Dali or Rong Rong turned to the ruins of the workers’ housing estates, the disused industrial sites, an urban space which had been disrupted and which itself simultaneously disrupted the choice of exhibition venues.

Rong Rong, photograph, untitled.

In Emmanuel Lincot, L’Invitation à la Chine, op. cit.

  • 7  China’s New Art, Post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ, 1993.

11The exhibitions of experimental art in the People’s Republic were discovered by art professionals from the West, Taiwan or Hong Kong at the beginning of the 1990s. The success of the international exhibition China’s New Art, post-1989, organised by the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ 7, and the considerable attention attracted by the first participation of young Chinese artists in the 1993 Venice Biennale, as well as the publication of articles in Flash Art and The New York Times Magazine, explain the growing interest of the foreign media in the Chinese art scene, as well as the enormous prestige which artists acquired by becoming, sometimes against their will, the flag-bearers of their country.

12Exhibition venues diversified. They tended to oppose the persistent collusion between state interests and the members of the juries, which is rarely propitious to the development of original creation. After 1989, exhibitions retreated from the art galleries and the commercial spaces, sometimes to spaces in private houses or in diplomatic compounds. Beginning in 1993, the galleries affiliated to institutions, such as those of the Teacher Training College or the Central Fine Arts Academy, became major sites of experimental exhibition in Peking, mainly because of the open-mindedness shown by the directors of these establishments. These were not, however, isolated examples. Thus, Guo Shirui, director of the very official Contemporary Art Centre in Peking, began, in 1994, to organise a series of highly important artistic events. With time it became clear that these galleries and the art world in general were subject to the play of competition and to a strategy of modulable discourse which sought to transcend the constraints of government censorship and to seek public and private subsidy. This competition was at the source of the development of a contemporary art market which began with the first Canton Biennale (in October 1992). Then came Shanghai (1996), the stakes of which, on the world art scene, were upped by the French art critic Pierre Restany when he presided over the event four years later.

13At the heart of this decision-making process was the author, at one and the same time set designer, director, interpreter and creator of the exhibition, which was conceived as a work of art where the artist, the organiser and the public met; the events became a performance. The word recalls the variety of meanings, the differentiation and the multiple temporalisation of social phenomena. The performance and its objects refer us as much to the subject as to the venue, which is to be considered as a site where the work is made, is consulted, is even booed at, and never ceases to build and rebuild itself. The fact that the work and the exhibition were constantly evolving gave the organisers a variety of ways to circumvent the constraints of censorship, for example by transferring their exhibition from China to one or several foreign countries. It was in the microworld of the experimental exhibition that were developed the newest ideas and the most powerful images, which were less and less often those of painting. The government’s reluctance to facilitate these artistic events was all the more understandable in that they perturbed political arrangements and age-old cultural codes. Censorship or self-censorship leading to the cancellation of an event, constituted the symptomatic realities of a culture held in an ideological yoke which continued to exercise a fearsome constraint in the era of Deng Xiaoping.

14However the real revolution in Chinese contemporary art was to be found in its integration into the logic of the market, which the national economy as a whole was then tending to embrace. This evolution was accompanied by the emergence of new socio-political categories, centred on the individual and situated on the frontier between the professions of information, of art and of politics.

In Emmanuel Lincot, Avant-gardes (Xianfeng yishu), op. cit.

An archetype of the communicating artist : Ai Weiwei

15A new profession appeared: that of critic-dealer or cultural mediator (in English “independent curator”; in Chinese “duli cezhanren”). The cultural mediator is a freelance professional who combines several functions. He is the obligatory intermediary between the Ministry of Culture, its éminences grises, the exhibition commissioner, the artists, the public, and the potential consumers. He “manufactures” opinion, describes current trends, travels, and negotiates between the parties concerned, in particular with the collector who, by means of his financial assets and social position—he is often a diplomat or an industrialist—spreads rumours, destroys reputations, drapes himself in the prestigious role of patron, of defender—on occasion—of human rights, of freedom of expression in a country where, it is true, society does not much appreciate independence or the right to be different.

16The major factor in this evolution of the art scene was the appearance of selective events, in the form of performances or of exhibitions in private spaces, which tended to vary their participants and their venues without it being necessary to obtain, in a systematic way, the permission of the authorities. As this trend developed, not without coming up against real reservations (sometimes on the part of the artists themselves who preferred, for career strategies, the exclusive recognition of official circles), the field of artistic experimentation broke up into very diverse groups (in the 1980s) and then into individuals (after 1989) on the edges of the system, which increased their dependence on critics, dealers, and on a range of opinion, which was no longer restricted to the conurbations of Peking and Shanghai. Willingly or not, they were integrated into a micro-society where imagination met the internationalist economy. Virtual processes like the Internet, and other communication media, sometimes had the effect of shifting the attention of the critics and of the public onto the identitarian and even the nationalistic specificity of both the work and its producer.

17There were many examples of brilliant artistic careers. These successes were undoubtedly linked to the utilisation of the new communication media, which the artists of the new generation ingeniously turned to their advantage. The most remarkable archetype of this new kind of artist was the Pekingese Ai Weiwei. Artist, dealer, gallery owner, collector, publisher, he embodied to an extent previously unequalled, the most diverse functions which correspond to the key axioms of art communication, then still in its infancy. His way of working and his libertarian attitude made him an artist of a new kind, on the frontiers between the art world, assumed poetic dissidence, commercial opportunism, and scholarly aristocracy. As the son of the poet Ai Qing, a supporter of the regime, his pedigree opened the doors to a broad social recognition. He chose to attend the Film Institute which reopened in 1979, having been closed because of the Cultural Revolution. But neither the cinema nor China could hold the young Ai Weiwei, and after joining the Xing Xing group, he opted for expatriation in New York. There, he attended the Parsons School of Design, traded in antiques for a living, and frequented both the museums and the underground, as well as one of his mentors, William Burroughs. His reference in art was and has remained Marcel Duchamp: a choice which is symptomatic of a generation which finds its marks not in a formalist debate, but rather in the distinction between the sphere of art and of aesthetics.

18In relation to this model, the journey of a work to its presumed consumer is no longer linear but forms a loop; in this it resembles a practice which existed in scholarly circles in the China of the old school. The scholar, as both man of action and man of letters, was a cultural mediator as well as an essential conveyor of the production and transmission of knowledge. For Ai Weiwei’s generation, however, which stands halfway between a claim to modernity and the disenchanted ideal of the scholar-peasant which Mao Zedong embodied in the iconoclastic and revolutionary mode, the path to follow is that of consumerism and, springing from this, of the inauthenticity of works of art and their reducibility to the level of language (whether that of advertising, of the classical, of the universal or the cryptic) becoming the driving force of a reality which needs to be reinterpreted. The artist broke new ground when he suggested to the collectors and dealers Hans Van Dick and Frank Uytterhaegen that they set up a foundation in Peking, The China Modern Art Foundation, of which he is now co-director. This venue exhibits his own works (paintings, installations and sculptures), and functions as a venture in social advancement, in keeping with the nature and ambition of artistic marketing on an international scale between Peking and New York.

The integration of Chinese art in the international market

  • 8  A number of exhibition catalogues have been published in the West which make it possible to become (…)

19The novelty in China was not the marketing of works of art—which is doubtless as old as the invention of collecting―but rather their integration in the international art market. The craze for contemporary Chinese art was in keeping with a media movement with strong exotic inclinations which first began in eastern Europe, before and especially just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and which continues to this day. At first it was private initiatives, on the part of art lovers such as the Swiss ambassador Uli Sigg, which attracted the attention of the media. Then various governments organised, with some difficulty, major retrospectives in Europe, in Australia, in the United States and in Japan. There were few galleries in China until the early 1990s—except for those established in Hong Kong. The reason for this was the endless harassment and administrative threats faced by the owners of these spaces (which were moreover much coveted by artists), most of whom were of foreign origin. These galleries, mostly situated in Peking and Shanghai, nevertheless had a considerable impact, for they set the prices of works of art for those who aspired to an international career 8.

20The critics often reported a perversion of the art school system and the increasing unease of the public, who assessed the works only in terms of the market speculation to which they were then subjected. This unease encouraged the authorities to adapt the art school system to the norms created by the market. Structural reforms as well as the overhaul of the training courses for students (including work experience in advertising agencies or abroad) opened up the art schools to new possibilities. The overhauling of the art schools in China (the merging of several academies, the creation of galleries with joint public and private funds), which came into effect only after the death of Deng Xiaoping, called fundamentally into question one of the canonical principles, once defined at Yan’an: art only in the service of the people.

21The deep unease felt by a large number of artists and intellectuals in China in the face of this upheaval, is better explained by the fact that the last twenty years produced an extraordinary confusion in people’s work and in their minds; the egalitarian and communist philosophies were succeeded by nationalistic and even xenophobic ideas of resistance to “spiritual pollution”. And yet Deng Xiaoping’s China was no longer, if indeed it had ever been, a cultural loner. It followed and accompanied globalisation, and, at the same time, offered resistance by the reinterpretation of a living tradition which was its own, while fundamentally calling into question the structures of the art world inherited from the Maoist period.

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Wang Guangyi. Great Criticism: Coca-Cola. 1991–1994. © 2015 Wang Guangyi.

In 1993 exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art were rolled out in rapid succession from Hong Kong to Australia, across Europe, and in the United States.1 Although a handful of artworks had been shown in the United States and Europe before this, the sheer number of exhibitions and their occurrence in high-profile venues such as at the venerable Venice Biennale and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin ensured that 1993 would be remembered as a milestone in the history of contemporary Chinese art.

This essay presents some of the ways in which these 1993 exhibitions have contributed—and continue to contribute—to understandings of contemporary Chinese art. In the first part of this essay, I investigate how the exhibitions’ naming and circulation of specific styles and artists disseminated enduring narratives about Chinese art and politics to an international public. Though the reception of contemporary Chinese art raised important questions about the mechanisms of canonization, the dominance of this discourse has also overshadowed alternative readings of the post-1989 contemporary Chinese art scene. The second part of the essay thus approaches the exhibitions before their controversial legacies took hold. When explored in this light, these exhibitions serve as testaments to an emerging and surprising energy in contemporary Chinese art during the early 1990s, a dynamism that is often overlooked within the prevailing narratives of tragedy and dissent.


In order to understand how these exhibitions were received, it is first necessary to examine the contexts and conflicts from which they emerged. In 1989 momentous shifts in art and politics deeply affected the way people perceived China and its position in the world, and in turn the assumptions with which they greeted these exhibitions four years later. On June 4, 1989, news media around the world captured the Chinese central government’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The fall of the Berlin Wall later that year, followed by the end of the Eastern Bloc and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, meant that by 1993 China was seen as occupying a strangely alienated position as the last major stalwart of Communism. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping—the de facto leader of China—embarked on his famed Southern Tour through the country’s coastal cities to call for renewed economic reform.2 The reforms portended the rise of a new capitalist ethos in China and further contributed to the country’s ideologically conflicted image. Within this convergence of sociopolitical events and conditions—Chinese authoritarianism, the worldwide collapse of Communism, and a new domestic shift toward capitalist economic reform—contemporary Chinese art offered curious observers a window into a politically and culturally enigmatic place.

The year 1989 also witnessed historical changes in the art world. Coinciding with the events of June 4, the exhibition Magiciens de la terre opened at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle at the Parc de la Villette in Paris. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin with the aim of bringing together the world’s centers and peripheries—including China—this landmark exhibition attempted to use a “universalist conception of the act of art creation” to provide an even playing field for the participating artists.3 Art critics, particularly those from the “peripheries,” immediately panned Magiciens for ignoring the geopolitical and historical conditions that had led to the very center-periphery paradigm that the exhibition sought to redress. For example, artist-critic Rasheed Araeen charged: “The central concern remains the same old-fashioned debate about the relationship between modernism and the traditions of others. . . . The question is no longer only what the ‘other’ is but also how the ‘other’ has subverted the very assumptions on which ‘otherness’ is constructed by dominant culture.”4 Just as Magiciens marked a commitment to expanding the reach of global contemporary art, it also generated great attention and momentum for commentary on how to fulfill that task responsibly. Artists and critics from the world’s peripheries called for subaltern voices to rise up and speak for themselves.5

The 1993 exhibitions can thus best be situated against a background of ideological conflict, emerging critiques of global power dynamics, and cultural curiosity about China. With the expansion of the global art world after Magiciens de la terre, Western interest in the non-West was on the rise. Leading up to the 1993 Venice Biennale, the Milan-based international contemporary art magazine Flash Art ran a four-page spread on contemporary Chinese art by Kong Chang’an, a young art critic studying in Italy.6 Later tapped to be one of the curators of the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale, Kong was both well informed and eager to share his images and knowledge of the contemporary art scene in China. As Kong recalls, the editors of Flash Art seemed equally excited to receive these materials: “It was like they were waiting for this.”7 The magazine’s enthusiasm was confirmed by the appearance of Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism: Coca-Cola (1991) on the cover of the January/February 1992 issue.

Cover of Flash Art, VOL XXV, No 162. January/February 1992.

Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism: Coca-Cola typifies the style known as Political Pop. Three men in the foreground—a worker, farmer, and soldier—stand unified in their postures and joined through a sense of fixed resolve. The figures’ exaggerated musculature, their depiction through black contour lines and flat colors, and the red flag behind their heads are all appropriated from early Cultural Revolution posters. Juxtaposed against these Socialist symbols is a swooping Coca-Cola logo at the bottom right of the picture, a sign of the proliferation of Western commodities in a new consumer culture. Characterized by bright colors, planar surfaces, and identifiable ideological symbols, Political Pop was quickly embraced by Western audiences for its graphic seductiveness and the legibility of its political references. Flash Art’s selection of this particular image presaged the 1993 exhibitions’ principal focus on Political Pop and Cynical Realism.

Art critic and curator Li Xianting coined the terms “Cynical Realism” and “Political Pop” in 1991. The label “Cynical Realism” first circulated in February 1992 in Li’s article for the Hong Kong publication Twenty-First Century. Though the article mentioned Pop, Li didn’t formally specify the term “Political Pop” until he began planning the 1993 exhibition China’s New Art, Post-1989. He more fully theorized “Political Pop” in a 1992 article for the Taiwan-based magazine Art Trends, in which he wrote of the two styles: “They are both interested in the dissolution of certain systems of meaning and both attend to reality. Cynical Realism focuses on the senseless reality of the self, whereas Political Pop directly portrays the reality of dissolved meanings.”8 Li Xianting’s swift labeling and historicized interpretations helped to corral contemporary Chinese art into identifiable categories. Furthermore, his writings on these particular styles provided an early glimpse into post-1989 China for inquisitive audiences abroad. According to Li, these early articles attracted substantial critical attention and were subsequently excerpted in other overseas journals.9 By 1993 the fact that works of Political Pop and Cynical Realism could be discussed as designated stylistic categories and accompanied by authoritative explanations made them all the more accessible and attractive for circulation.

Invitation card and leaflet for China's New Art, Post-1989. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong.

Leaflet for New Art from China. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong.

After making a splash on the cover of Flash Art, Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism series continued to receive widespread international exposure and media attention across multiple exhibitions in 1993. Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan, the principal figures of Political Pop, were included in the three exhibitions in Hong Kong, Berlin, and Venice; moreover, their works received special attention in the promotional materials for these exhibitions. After the initial blockbuster showing of China’s New Art, Post-1989 in Hong Kong, the exhibition traveled in different iterations to Australia, Europe, and the United States. For London’s Marlborough Fine Art gallery, Yu’s Mao Decorated (1993) adorned invitation cards. In perhaps the most overt declaration of this trend, the condensed version of the exhibition in Sydney was titled Mao Goes Pop: Post-1989 and featured Yu’s The Waving Mao (1990) on its catalogue cover.10 Similarly, Yu Youhan’s work Talking with Hunan Peasants (1991) graced the cover of the English and Chinese versions of the China Avant-Garde catalogue, while Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism—Marlboro (1990) was featured on the German version.

Cover illustration of Mao Goes Pop: China Post-1989 (Sydney, Australia: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993).

Cover illustration of China Avant-Garde: Counter-Currents in Art in Culture, Chinese edition (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Cover illustration of China Avant-Garde: Counter-Currents in Art in Culture, German edition (Heidelberg: Edition Braus, 1993).

The 1993 exhibitions and the attention they received in the press made Political Pop and Cynical Realism tremendously popular among Western media and audiences. Featuring large faces and distorted perspectives, Cynical Realism shared with Political Pop a perceived streak of irreverence and satire. Fang Lijun, the leading figure of Cynical Realism, also exhibited at all three exhibitions. He, along with Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan, enjoyed immediate success abroad. All three artists took part in China’s first-ever appearance at the São Paolo Biennial in 1994, and went on to have solo exhibitions and to participate in select group shows in Hong Kong and Europe throughout the decade.

In reviewing the catalogues and curatorial notes for these shows, it is perhaps surprising to see the vast array of writings and artists’ works. The catalogues for China Avant-Garde and China’s New Art, Post-1989 offer impressive frameworks that accommodate multiple perspectives. The essays in China Avant-Garde, in particular, expand well beyond art to include texts on experimental theater, music, and literature. Moreover, as the physical space at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt was limited, the curators included biographical details and images linked to forty-four artists beyond the sixteen who were shown. In Hong Kong, China’s New Art, Post-1989 similarly exhibited an enormous number of works, which were organized into six categories. Nevertheless, emphasis was on Political Pop and Cynical Realism: as Jane DeBevoise has calculated, about 45 percent of the images in the catalogue exemplified these two styles.11

The ensuing media coverage further promoted this narrowed attention. Andreas Schmid, co-curator of the China Avant-Garde exhibition in Berlin, recalls: “The media echo was strong, but often shallow in nature. Too many newspaper articles favored the colorful, realistically painted, and figurative artworks on display because they were supposedly ‘easier’ to understand.”12 In particular, Schmid laments: “The media hardly noticed the more complex video works of Zhang Peili or the conceptual work of Geng Jianyi, or tried to understand them.”13 In contrast to the straightforward visual and political accessibility of Political Pop and Cynical Realism, Zhang Peili’s exhibited videos—30 x 30 (1988), Document on Hygiene, No. 3 (1991), Water: The Standard Version Read from the Cihai Dictionary (1992), and Homework No. 1 (1992)—lacked iconographic legibility for a foreign audience. Document on Hygiene, No. 3, for example, presents the artist washing a chicken over the course of twenty-four minutes and forty-five seconds. With no sound and little change in action, the video of this performance denies a comprehensive narrative reading. Though part of the meaning of the video is tied to the very absurdity of the depicted action and its non-narrative format, Zhang’s work was seen as overly opaque when compared to the visual allure and perceived political messages in Wang Guangyi’s and Fang Lijun’s canvases.

WATER — Standard Version from the Dictionary Ci Hai by Zhang Peili, presented at China Avant-Garde (Berlin), Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, 1993. Courtesy of Andreas Schmid Archive at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong.

An unfortunate consequence of this limited focus on Political Pop and Cynical Realism was the misconception that these styles were representative of the entire contemporary Chinese art scene. Equally problematic were readings of the paintings as imitative of Western styles. One critic’s review of the Berlin exhibition reported: “There are signs, similar to those in recent Russian art, that younger painters have only just discovered Western Pop Art, so for Westerners there is a déjà vu quality about the work of such as [sic] Wang Guangyi or Yu Youhan.”14 In this way, Political Pop confirmed international audiences’ existing views of China as culturally lagging and stylistically derivative of the West, where Pop had flourished decades earlier.

Fang Lijun. Series 2, No. 2. 1991–1992. Oil on canvas, 200 x 120 cm. © 2015 Fang Lijun.

In December 1993 Andrew Solomon concluded the year with his seminal article “Their Irony, Humor (and Art) Can Save China” in the New York Times Magazine. The article, illustrated with works by Fang Lijun and Wang Guangyi, among others, included details of the effects that such exposure had had on cultural production inside China. Solomon described the scene at the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing, where a community of painters resided, as “a mecca for Western tourists and journalists.” He wrote of the artists: “Many imitate each other, unimaginatively combining Cynical Realism and Political Pop. In fact, when you look closely at the paintings produced there, you feel that most of these artists are only a half step away from jade carvers or other practitioners of local handicraft for foreign consumption.”15 Solomon’s observations speak to the swift material consequences of the 1993 exhibitions. The convergence of international ambition with foreign consumers led to styles becoming rote formulae and the assumption that sheer technical labor could be a fast track to success. Yet as Solomon directs critique at Chinese cultural producers’ reactions to Western tastes, he leaves out more critical commentary on how Western media and audiences can be complicit in perpetuating reductive understandings of contemporary Chinese art. This is especially important given the magazine’s own choice to feature Fang Lijun’s painting Series 2, No. 2 (1991–1992) on the cover. Though Solomon’s lengthy article incorporates discussions of conceptual artists and their works—including Zhang Peili’s Document on Hygiene, No. 3—Fang Lijun’s distorted bald man with wide-open mouth and closed eyes remains the powerful representative image of this 1993 written exposition. In later histories of contemporary Chinese art and Fang’s own work and life, the New York Times Magazine cover figures prominently as a seminal moment in assuring the popularity of Cynical Realism with a foreign readership.16

Solomon’s titular point about “saving China,” furthermore, underscores the contrast in the perceptions of those inside and outside China with regard to contemporary Chinese art. For Western journalists, the question was invariably one of individualism and freedom against an authoritarian government. For Chinese critics, it was about the power of Chinese people to identify and contextualize themselves. The very issues described and represented by Solomon spoke to the concerns of Chinese critics over the dangers of Western reception and consumption.

Art critics inside China worried that coverage of Political Pop and Cynical Realism to the exclusion of other current tendencies would only serve to confirm the post–Cold War view of China as simply comprising derivative Western styles, cultures, and consumerism. They were concerned that inclusion in the global art world could be accomplished only by acceding to foreign tastes and that a more comprehensive view of the full range of contemporary Chinese art would be precluded. Art critic Lü Peng, as the chief organizer of the 1992 Guangzhou Biennial, had already attempted to remedy the situation. Intent on creating a Chinese art market funded by local entrepreneurs, he had set out to put the power of evaluation—critical and monetary—in the hands of Chinese critics.17

In 1994 this power dynamic was the subject of Wang Lin’s damning critique “Oliva is Not the Savior of Contemporary Chinese Art.”18 Wang faulted Achille Bonito Oliva, co-curator of the 1993 Venice Biennale, for using a Eurocentric framework to select artworks. He accused Oliva of deliberately choosing ideologically charged works that would present China as a “living fossil of the Cold War.” To combat the desire to seek “approval from a commanding height,” Wang charged Chinese art critics with the responsibility of selecting work that possessed an “experimental spirit and creative spirit based on the logic of Chinese art’s development.” This call to reclaim and establish for themselves the means and measures of success was posed as a direct challenge to Chinese artists’ growing assumption that they needed Western support in order to succeed.

Even after 1993 these same concerns over agency continued to haunt contemporary Chinese art exhibitions abroad. Hou Hanru, writing in the latter half of the 1990s, addressed what he saw as the continued marginalization of Chinese artists within international exhibitions: “Certainly, [the] Chinese avant-garde, especially Political Pop and Cynical Realism, are gaining more and more opportunities to exhibit in the international art world. In the meantime, the artists involved begin to notice that they themselves are being treated as ‘second-rate citizens’ or consumer goods in the ‘international consumer spectacle culture.’”19 To Hou, the repeated exposure of Political Pop and Cynical Realism across multiple exhibition and print platforms reaffirmed Western-centric readings of the “other” and signaled a lack of genuine interest in understanding the complexity of Chinese art. The one-dimensional readings of art and politics were like shiny goods with exotic labels, designed to appeal to distant audiences. With reference to Wang Guangyi’s works, David Clarke writes: “Recent Asian art may still largely be recuperated within a Western-centered vision. . . . Asian contemporary art may still be placed as a further temporary novelty for Western palates or viewed as comforting evidence that the non-Western world is becoming more like the West, is learning to speak its (artistic) language.”20 Writings such as this, on the geopolitical currents surrounding the international reception of contemporary Chinese art, have formed an important subset in both contemporary Chinese art and global art histories.

This scholarly discourse rightfully positions the 1993 exhibitions as a starting point for the problematic reception and Western-centric canonization of contemporary Chinese art. Though it is important to recognize these aspects of the exhibitions, it is also necessary to study them beyond their legacies as purveyors of East-West tensions.

1993: Before the Aftermath

One of the by-products of the attention paid to Political Pop and Cynical Realism was the dominant view that, as art critic Geraldine Norman put it, “Idealism died in China with the victims of Tiananmen Square.”21 Though the Tiananmen Square massacre undoubtedly dealt a blow to young intellectuals’ hopes for China, declarations that “idealism died” can too easily reduce all artists’ motivations to narratives of despair, leaving little room to acknowledge their agency and capacity to change. A closer look at the 1990s reveals robust artistic momentum and even idealism, which can, in fact, be detected in the 1993 exhibitions.

To understand how idealism can be associated with this period, it is necessary to see the post-1989 period not merely as depressed and cynical, but also as a time marked by the birth of new artistic approaches. To participants in the Chinese art world, 1989 brought swift and drastic changes. “Post-1989” refers not only to post-Tiananmen, but also to the numerous shutdowns of the China Avant-Garde exhibition during its run at the National Art Gallery in Beijing (now the National Art Museum of China) in February 1989. The government’s closure of the weekly newspaper Fine Arts in China further signaled an end to the drive for cultural enlightenment that had galvanized artists throughout the 1980s.22 Though on the one hand this fed into the post–June 4 atmosphere of confusion and despondency, on the other hand, it precipitated new pockets of creativity in the art world. Even if tainted by tragedy, styles such as Political Pop and Cynical Realism still showed how a slew of new experiments in form and function took off in the early 1990s. Though artists were no longer driven by the same lofty goals that characterized the 1980s, idealism hadn’t died altogether. Instead, it took on a more critical bent. Political Pop and Cynical Realism were only a small sampling of the multiple kinds of experiments erupting across generations and geographies in China. When seen in a broader context, even these styles can be regarded as part of a surge in new interrogations, experiments, and ways of thinking about contemporary art that were emerging in the Chinese art world.

Attention should be given to the individuals who took up the mantle of organizing exhibitions that recognized and supported these new art forms. In 1993 there were no established procedures for showing contemporary Chinese art outside of China. As such, the exhibition organizers faced tremendous challenges. Though seldom mentioned, it is important to note that many of the figures involved in bringing the 1993 exhibitions to fruition were not professional curators attached to institutions but rather people who had lived in China for a number of years and were, in many instances, art enthusiasts and students of art. Andreas Schmid, Hans van Dijk, and Jochen Noth, the curators of the China Avant-Garde exhibition, had studied in China in the 1980s. They saw the experimental artists as their friends and believed deeply in the originality and spirit of the work they were producing. One of these curators’ key motivations for organizing the exhibition was the urgent belief that such work needed to be shared worldwide for the benefit of the artists and the international public. From today’s perspective, this may seem idealistic or even simplistic, but a sincere belief in exhibiting contemporary Chinese art blossomed against all odds. In the absence of established organizational mechanisms and an art market, the exhibition organizers’ sheer enthusiasm for and commitment to this art should not be underestimated.

Johnson Chang, the owner of Hanart TZ gallery in Hong Kong and the most business-oriented curator of the group, has objected “to any suggestions that the curatorial selection was developed with financial motives in mind.”23 In his recollections of China’s New Art, Post-1989, he notes that foreign sponsorship for the exhibition was unattainable because the title’s allusion to 1989 deterred potential benefactors who “wanted to do business with China.”24 Schmid, in recounting the challenges of securing support for China Avant-Garde, cites political sensitivities. The organizers of all the exhibitions faced the additional obstacle of locating channels for shipping works out of China. In many ways, the curators’ successes in organizing their respective exhibitions despite these challenges testifies to their firm commitment to showing the art.

Francesca Dal Lago, who worked in the Italian Embassy in Beijing in the early 1990s, was instrumental in initiating Passage to the East, a special exhibition at the 1993 Venice Biennale. She recalls: “It was clear there was an energy there that was engaging and really special. And the idea was that these people should be made known outside.”25

Chang and Schmid both originally envisioned their respective exhibitions as encompassing longer spans of recent history. As each reveals in his recollections of that time, what was happening at that moment on the ground shifted the focus to the present. Chang remembers: “When I went back in 1991, everything had changed. So I changed my mind about bringing the last show to Hong Kong. . . . What was being made was very exciting. A lot of it very secretive, a lot of it was half-baked. What was evident was that this was the dawn of a new era. It was also evident that the 1980s was closed and we were on the dawn of a new period. So the strategy of the Post-1989 exhibition was to define what was different from the 1980s.”26

Speaking of his return to China in November 1991 to prepare China Avant-Garde, Schmid relates: “Before autumn 1991, we had the idea to cover the 1980s including No-Name Group and Star Group, but already on this trip we had to face a new and different reality: times had changed and had brought a new generation of very young artists who were different from the 1980s in attitude as well as in artistic manner and style.”27

Though he mentions Cynical Realism in particular, Schmid also notes the surprise he experienced when viewing photographs of works by the Big Tail Elephant Group in Guangzhou: “It was very interesting because we thought everything was repressed. But, it was not. This Guangzhou group was so experimental, they used so many media, so we decided to take them in, too.”28 As a result, Lin Yilin was one of the sixteen artists featured in China Avant-Garde, while the other three members of Big Tail Elephant—Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, and Xu Tan—were included among the forty-four additional artists featured in the catalogue.

Xu Tan. Uniform Velocity, Variant Velocity I. 1992. Installation. © 2015 Xu Tan.

Indeed, the Big Tail Elephant Group is an excellent example not only of new stylistic experiments but also of the new ideas about artistic process that launched them. In their 1993 working meeting, Xu Tan explained: “In this group, every artist’s individual creation is encouraged and supported, and you can feel the liveliness of creativity; it is a place of freedom, such that our collaboration generates a force—a lasting potential. The openness of our working structure is the source of our confidence in the future.”29 The sense of zeal and drive can be felt not only in the stylistic differentiation, but also in their forward-looking attitudes toward art and the creative processes of production.

The members of the Big Tail Elephant Group experimented widely with different materials, often in the form of elaborate installations and/or performance. Unlike Political Pop and Cynical Realist painters, they didn’t seek to formulate visual styles on canvas but rather to realize concepts by means of objects and spaces. Though the members of the group worked individually, they supported each other and helped to theorize each other’s work and drive each other’s creativity. In his 1991 performance Seven Days in Silence, Chen Shaoxiong painted a piece of hanging plastic for a week without saying a word. In this action, he attempted to create a situation in which time could be experienced differently from the way it is lived in the usual course of daily existence.30 Xu Tan also engaged questions of time, particularly in terms of speed and pace, in his installation Uniform Velocity, Variant Velocity (1992). In the dim space of Big Tail Elephant Group’s second exhibition, Xu arranged neon tubing to create a playful, disorderly scene reminiscent of the bright, garish decor of restaurants and entertainment venues in Guangzhou. In addition to presenting colorful neon forms in recognizable shapes, the artist also dangled fluorescent wires from the ceiling and attached to them a range of objects: medicine bottles, syringes, foodstuffs, etc. Hooked up to an electric motor, these long neon strands rotated at different speeds. As Xu described it: “We are entering into a speed of un-adaptable changes, Western culture, traditional culture, commercial, and popular culture, and Socialist thinking.”31 Xu’s references to the coexistence of disparate ideologies and his inclusion in his 1992 piece of commercial signs recall important aspects of Political Pop paintings, however, his attention to velocity, repetitive motion, light, and asynchronicity marks a departure from the reliance on visual symbols and graphic composition found in Wang Guangyi’s paintings. The coexistence of these distinct languages and ways of thinking about art showcases the vast range of artistic experiments that were being conducted to communicate and critique contemporary experiences in the early 1990s.

Chen Shaoxiong. Seven Days of Silence. 1991. Performance. © 2015 Chen Shaoxiong.

This again points to an important way of thinking about the artistic energy of 1993: it was composed of and produced by a diversity of experiments. It reminds us that at any given time, multiple generations of artists are working at once, drawing upon distinct histories and artistic pasts, and generating a variety of artistic concepts. For example, though Political Pop and Cynical Realism are often mentioned in the same breath, Li Xianting’s observation that most Political Pop artists were born in the 1950s while Cynical Realists emerged from a younger generation, is usually overlooked. In fact, Fang Lijun, positioned his work in contradistinction to the art of Wang Guangyi’s generation, which he regarded as “superficial” and “pivoted on ‘too many motifs, gestures, symbols and narrative illustrations of an idea.’”32 Though Cynical Realists such as Fang Lijun and Liu Wei found fame alongside of the Political Pop artists such as Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan, they were of a different generation and ultimately drew on their own histories and ideas of what art should be. Their peers included even more artists who were on the brink of developing new concepts and styles. Focusing on 1993 thus serves as a way of thinking about how generations and collective experiences inform staggered and varied trajectories of stylistic and conceptual maturity. This, in turn, allows us to recognize and distinguish among coexisting attitudes, opportunities, and artistic methods.


The 1993 exhibitions offer a valuable window onto the pressing concerns that were then germinating in global and local discourses. I have suggested three ways in which we can approach these exhibitions. First, focusing on the reception of the exhibitions opens up the problematic East-West power relations undergirding the ways in which contemporary Chinese art has been interpreted and canonized. Second, remembering that though 1993 was the year these exhibitions were seen, it was in the preceding years that they were conceived, planned, and fine-tuned. Therefore, when assessing the significance of the exhibitions, it is necessary to attend not only to the concerns over reception that developed in their aftermath, but also to the excitement and curatorial decisions that brought them to fruition. This leads to my third point: that in addition to adopting a wider temporal scope when considering the importance of these exhibitions, we need also to adopt a wider geographical and cultural perspective, to look further than the exhibition checklists and the artists who received the most attention.

Indeed, the examination of these two final points places emphasis on a new sense of energy in the early 1990s, which ultimately brought these exhibitions into being. This dynamism provides a significant counterpoint to the dominant understandings of contemporary Chinese art of the early 1990s that surround the 1993 exhibitions, in particular the notion that idealism had died in China. From the Garage Show in Shanghai (1991) to the New Generation exhibition in Beijing (1991) and the activities of the Big Tail Elephant Group in Guangzhou, the early 1990s witnessed artists of different generations and regions working in diverse modes yet also responding to one another. Regardless of who was exhibited in the 1993 exhibitions, their work came out of a context in which multiple generations—veterans of the ’85 Art New Wave, recent graduates, and artists not yet fully fledged—all contributed to a sense of percolating energy and creativity in the early 1990s.

Lin Yilin. The Wall Itself. 1993. Installation: brick, plastic bags, water,160 x 400 x 50 cm. © 2015 Lin Yilin.

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